When Jose Elias Lerma was arrested by the Douglas Police Department last month, it brought a close to his 15 months on the run after absconding while awaiting trial on federal marijuana charges.
Lerma, 57, has been back in custody since Dec. 6 and is finally scheduled to stand trial on charges originally filed against him in 2020. That jury trial is slated to begin March 22 at the U.S. District Courthouse in Tucson.
According to the criminal complaint, Lerma came to the attention of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers on June 4, 2020 as he drove his personal pickup truck into the United States from Mexico at the Douglas Port of Entry. Officers found 282 packages weighing a total of 320 pounds concealed throughout the truck.
Some packages were within the front and rear passenger doors, the back wall of the truck, the front half of the truck bed, the speaker box, both rear quarter panels, and the passenger side rear bed compartment. Additional packages were found in a backpack and a duffel bag located in the truck bed, the complaint states.
In a post-Miranda statement to federal investigators, Lerma reportedly admitted agreeing to smuggle marijuana into the U.S. in exchange for $400. However, he claimed it was supposed to be only 20 to 25 pounds.
Lerma, who lived in Sierra Vista, was released from federal custody two weeks later to await trial. He was not required to post bail or a bond, but was ordered to reside with a third-party custodian approved by the court.
Four months later, the U.S. Attorney’s Office advised the court that Lerma’s custodian reported he failed to return to the residence after Sept. 5, 2020. In addition, a family member advised that Lerma “had not made contact” for several days, and Lerma failed to attend a therapy appointment as ordered.
An arrest warrant was signed by a U.S. Magistrate Judge the same month, but Lerma would remain a fugitive for 15 months. That ended when a Douglas police officer booked Lerma into the Cochise County jail on the 2020 warrant.
Details of how Lerma came to be taken into custody is not noted in the federal court file.
A short time later the U.S. Marshals Service took custody of Lerma, who will remain in pretrial custody until at least Jan. 27 when he can make an argument for release pending the March trial.